The Weeknd: Willing and Abel

The Weeknd: Willing and Abel

Following his record-setting album, Beauty Behind the Madness, the Weeknd has become one of the biggest names in music today. With his next, he’s out to prove that this success isn’t smoke and mirrors

Following his record-setting album, Beauty Behind the Madness, the Weeknd has become one of the biggest names in music today. With his next, he’s out to prove that this success isn’t smoke and mirrors

Photography: Inez & Vinoodh

Styling: Mel Ottenberg

Text: Alex Frank

This story appears in VMAN36, on newsstands September 7. Click here to order the issue.

Has there ever been a sadder, more exciting lyric than, “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me,” the cornerstone phrase in the chorus to the Weeknd’s 2015 pop smash “The Hills”? Those eight words were buried beneath enough booming blockbuster production that you could almost forget to pay attention to what they actually meant. And after “The Hills” was released in May 2015, they were, at one point last summer, so ubiquitous at nightclubs and on the radio that they came to be like a sonic wallpaper, with surely more than a few partygoers taking them as superficial encouragement to just keep on drinking. Take a step back, though, and think about them in the light of day, and the lyrics point to something darker, the best reminder of the blues in “R&B.” Those are upsetting, poignant words and an admission of so much usually left undiscussed about the search for honesty, intimacy, self, and our dependence on intoxicants to help us, even fleetingly, find those things. And yet, there’s something promising about those words, too, that even in these highly produced musical times, there can be, beneath the sheen of modern American pop, a kernel of genius that still quickly sums up the entire pathetic angst of being a person. They are, most of all, admirably straight to the point, eight words that symbolize the strange, bewildering times we live in, not to mention the whirlwind trip that has been the Weeknd’s ride from anonymity to life as one of the biggest acts in music.

COAT CALVIN KLEIN COLLECTION PINS CHROME HEARTS

Abel Tesfaye, better known as the Weeknd, wrote “The Hills” for his sophomore, breakout album Beauty Behind the Madness, released in August 2015. “That line was specific for the situation that song was talking about. It ended up being the lyric everybody started relating to, and then it wasn’t until the song blew up that I realized how much of a reality it was in most people’s lives,” Tesfaye says. “Unfortunately, a lot of great things have happened when I was fucked up, and sometimes I ask myself whether any of it would have been possible if I was sober. People might look at it as a sad reality, but when I perform it, the people sing it with so much joy. That’s what really matters to me.” And joy it seemed to bring: it was the fifth best-selling album of the year, spending 45 consecutive weeks in the top 10 on the Billboard charts. He is currently working on his next album. “There are new inspirations on this album,” he says. “The production feels aggressive but still sexy. The Smiths, Bad Brains, Talking Heads, Prince, and DeBarge play roles. We wrote it all in Los Angeles. I think it’ll be the best-sounding album I’ve ever done. It’s hard to label the sound because, when I first came out, nobody would label it R&B. I just want to keep pushing the envelope without it feeling forced,” he says.

Tesfaye is 26 years old and from the outskirts of Toronto. Though he was splattered over tabloids and magazines all of last year—partly due to his music and partly due to the fact that he dates supermodel Bella Hadid—he looks comfortingly more like an average Joe than a typical pop star. He doesn’t have the beefcake appeal of Drake or the androgynous beauty of Justin Bieber, and though his voice, an eternal falsetto, recalls Michael Jackson, who he has long claimed as one of his primary musical influences, he has a much moodier singing style.

JACKET BURBERRY HOODIE MR. COMPLETELY PINS STYLIST’S OWN

It doesn’t take a political scientist to realize that we are living in schizophrenic times, and owing to the fact that every moment gets the pop star it deserves, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we’ve nurtured the rise of a dark knight like the Weeknd. But though everyone from Jim Morrison to Donna Summer has created radio hits about our collective cultural id, no one has quite consistently taken it as far as Tesfaye. These aren’t just your usual party songs; they’re far too bleak for that. The Weeknd’s music, despite the high-tech shine, harkens in spirit back to the truth-telling of the blues, updated for modern times and a millennial audience with bad freelance gigs and easy access to Xanax. The song that made him a household name, 2015’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” had in sound all the disco-glitz of a Bruno Mars song, largely due to the fact that Tesfaye sought out production help from none other than Max Martin (the man who invented the model for modern pop by helming Britney Spears’s “...Baby One More Time” in 1998 and about a million peppy earworm smashes since). But even with the Cadillac of pop production, Tesfaye couldn’t help himself: the lyrics are a thinly veiled personification of drug addiction as a beautiful woman, with a not-so-subtle reference to dying young. The song received two Grammy nominations, hit number one on the Billboard charts, and has sold over two million copies.

We have generally not liked our modern pop stars so lawless—even Bieber had to go on an apology tour for all of 2015 to redeem himself in the public eye after a period of personal anarchy. We often view the kind of disorder that Tesfaye sings about as the beginning of the end, the canary in the coal mine, the calm before the hurricane of a celebrity breakdown—the eventual shaving of the head, the inevitable trip to rehab, the resulting fall from grace. Americans have, more often, loved to tell convenient lies about ourselves in song, with a preference for lyrics about redemption, hard work, fun, and empowerment. Even if there is heartbreak, there is always the possibility of triumphing against the pain or of catharsis through emotion. The Weeknd, instead, faces some of our weirder, muddier truths straight on: a track that he wrote for Fifty Shades of Grey—perhaps the perfect Hollywood analogue to Tesfaye’s elegant depravity—eloquently and blatantly echoed the film’s darkest themes, and went on to be nominated for an Academy Award, probably the first song about the generally untouchable topic of S&M to be recognized in Oscar history.

JACKET GIVENCHY BY RICCARDO TISCI HOODIE AND T-SHIRT T BY ALEXANDER WANG NECKLACE THE WEEKND’S OWN PIN (ON LAPEL) NEIL LANE PIN (ON SHOULDER) STYLIST’S OWN

There’s a lush cinematic creepiness to Tesfaye’s music, which he paints with such vivid colors that they have something of the fictional, storyboarded unease of a David Lynch movie. “Before I ever thought of making music, I wanted to make films. I was writing screenplays and short stories before I ever wrote a full song. David Lynch, alongside David Cronenberg, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese play a huge part in my brand, my looks, my sound, and my aesthetic,” he says. “At one point, my hair looked like Eraserhead.” And like Lynch, Tesfaye is uninterested in a playful, idealized take on American life—it’s more the rotten apple than the fresh, red supermarket variety. Many of his songs feature words about love not existing, school being for losers, money as the only goal. Though he technically is singing about having fun most of the time, he never sounds like he is having it himself.

So how did he (and we) get here, to this place where dire straits and the heights of pop are so intertwined? Tesfaye’s cryptic origin story is, by this point, legend. He grew up in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, after his mother and father left behind war-torn Ethiopia in the 1980s. The Ethiopian influence, he says, is all over his music, particularly in the last few moments of “The Hills,” which find him singing a few bars in Amharic. “You hear it mostly in my voice,” he says. “I’ve been told my singing isn’t conventional. Ethiopian music was the music I grew up on, artists like Tilahun Gessesse, Aster Aweke, and Mahmoud Ahmed. These are my subconscious inspirations. ‘The Hills’ was the first time you actually heard the Ethiopian language in my music. It will definitely be key on this next record.” His parents split when he was young, and he was raised by his mother. He dropped out of high school at 17 with his best friend and got a job at American Apparel, but mostly lived off of welfare checks. He was homeless for a period, sleeping on friends’ couches, did too many drugs, and slept with a lot of women. He also began recording music about his wild life, uploading the songs to YouTube in 2010 and eventually releasing three free, full-length mixtapes in 2011. His very first tracks are remarkable blueprints for his entire career up until now, with lyrics, over dark clouds for beats, about the pursuit of money at all costs, strippers, staying up all night, and never falling in love. “The Morning,” his best early song, has both the tired tempo and lyrical conceit of a sunrise after an all-night party. Incidentally, “The Morning” might also be the best window into what’s next for Tesfaye, as he says that the song’s producer, his “mentor” Doc McKinney, will play a big role on the album.

JACKET ALPHA INDUSTRIES HOODIE MR. COMPLETELY

The early music caught the attention of Drake, also from Toronto, and the rapper started giving Tesfaye shout-outs, while also quickly enlisting him to help write music for his moody 2011 album, Take Care. Throughout all of this, the man behind the Weeknd had remained mostly a mystery—Tesfaye gave no interviews until 2013, when he finally spoke to commemorate the release of his debut major label album. Kiss Land was a mild success, if middlingly creative, but it was enough to make him a touring draw.

In 2015, “Can’t Feel My Face” was as ubiquitous as a song can be, and his relationship with Hadid, whose modeling career also took off in 2015, achieved It Couple status. “Being anonymous had its perks,” says Tesfaye, a notorious spotlight evader, “but it feels great to be recognized for all of the work we’ve put out.” By 2016, he was one of only a few featured guest stars on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, for a song, “6 Inch,” on which he lyrically imagines a protagonist who is one part business executive, one part prostitute, and one part superheroine. “It feels great seeing the character of a powerful woman be sexy, yet take matters into her own hands and not feel so helpless,” he explains. Even the righteous Beyoncé, it seems, has fallen under Tesfaye’s shadowy spell.

His influence, too, has started to turn up across the industry. You see it in the more obvious, superficial ways, like on a recent album by megawatt star Zayn Malik, who is dating Gigi Hadid, the sister of Tesfaye’s girlfriend. Malik needed an edgier reinvention after leaving the teen pop group One Direction, so he channeled a Tesfaye-like distance in a number of his songs. There have been more spiritual reverberations, too. Rihanna’s most recent album, Anti, is a claustrophobic piece of work that positions her as a kind of elusive antiheroine. It is not exactly alike in sound—Rihanna is pushing at the confines of trap, R&B, and pop with even more verve than Tesfaye—but with its hazy, echoing vocals and unfiltered lyrics about commitment-free sex, it’s not all that far from Tesfaye’s ethos.

Still, this doesn’t answer the question of, why? What is it about Tesfaye’s particular brand of nihilism—so centered on not worrying about the consequences of his actions—that has struck such a chord? It is important to note that Tesfaye, at least to the public, is only chaotic in song, not in personal life. In interviews and public appearances, he comes across as poised, private, even serious. But this only makes the themes in his music even more estranged from the responsibilities of daily life. The more I looked for an understanding of the complicated but powerful resonance of his lyrics, the more I fell back on answers too obvious or cliché: an America in decline, millennials struggling with adulthood, a generation raised on Atlanta trap music and bleak golden age TV like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, a country beset by opiate addiction. The more I searched, the stranger it seemed that a whole nation was raising their Champagne glasses in 2015 to lyrics as self-aware and depressing as, “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me.”

And then, rather frustratingly, I realized that maybe the entire point is that there is no point. The whys and hows of the world now just linger, and it’s probably fruitless to try to understand a music that’s all about defying accountability. “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me” is another way of saying that none of this matters, that we’ll forget it by tomorrow and start all over again. The more I thought about Tesfaye’s spirit of proud irresponsibility and risky decadence, the more I saw it everywhere, in a world in which wild things seem to happen and we either can’t or don’t want to stop them. Tesfaye, then, is giving us the music we’ve earned—a soundtrack of songs about things that we know are not right, but that we are powerless to resist—and if we’ve sent his songs about running away to some numbed-out bliss to the top of the charts, it would be better to ask ourselves, not Tesfaye, what it is we are running from.

Perhaps there is a more important question: where does Tesfaye go from here? While he has been climbing, it has become increasingly cool again for artists to address political issues and have something to say, which Tesfaye saw first-hand working on Lemonade, a project about black womanhood, feminism, and forgiveness. It is maybe not a coincidence that Kendrick Lamar’s consciousness-raising album To Pimp a Butterfly was released to great acclaim (and, eventually, many Grammys) within six months of Beauty Behind the Madness. It expresses, in content, a complete inverse of Tesfaye’s aura, turning Lamar’s feelings of self-loathing and doubt into a rallying cry for social justice and uplift. This is not to say that every artist must be political—surely the fact that Lamar and Tesfaye were ascendant at precisely the same moment means that there is room enough in the culture for all different kinds of opposing points of views. And there is an argument to be made that, in tough times, escapism is more important than ever.

But how much more can he, and we, take? Tesfaye is about to release a piece of new work with the heightened expectations of following up one of the biggest breakthrough albums in recent memory. “Even though I’ve been putting out bodies of work for years, Beauty Behind the Madness felt like the beginning,” he says. “My purpose is to make exciting music, and I feel like I’ll be doing that for the rest of my life, so there’s no pressure. Nothing is stopping me from doing what I love to do.” So how will he grow and move forward without leaving behind the fans he has won? “I’ve been very intrigued by the film Amadeus. I’ll touch on my relationship with religion a little bit and how it ties into my crazy and materialistic life. I’ll touch base on some recent experiences and past experiences that didn’t make the last album. I wrote some of these songs while recording Beauty Behind the Madness. It’s like a fictional book inspired by true events.”

But there are hints that the tough truths of the real world are starting to encroach on the party. In May, it was reported that he canceled a performance on Jimmy Kimmel when he discovered that Donald Trump was also scheduled to be a guest. After the murder in July of two young black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, Tesfaye tweeted repeatedly in support of Black Lives Matter. “I promised myself that I would never tweet or talk about politics and focus on the music, but I was just so bewildered that we lost more of our people to these senseless police shootings,” Tesfaye says. “It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that there are people who can’t or won’t see what Black Lives Matter is trying to accomplish. I wish I could make music about politics. I feel like it’s such an art and a talent that I admire tremendously, but when I step into the studio I step out of the real world, and it’s therapeutic. It’s an escape, but recently it’s been very hard to ignore, and it’s also been very distracting. Maybe you’ll hear it in my voice, but it is not my forté.”

That’s a fair answer to a complicated question. But it reminded me of another thing as this long, hot summer came to an end, the realities of a very serious season approached, and I thought deeper about Tesfaye’s pagan appeal: weekends are great, but Monday morning, and the inevitable hangover, always comes.

UP NEXT

WEDIDIT: The Music Collective Making it in Fashion